Privacy and the Data Mining Risk

This blog seeks to highlight the extent at which our privacy is at risk whenever we do anything online and how you can enjoy anonymous surfing.  Perhaps to also draw attention to that completely false perception that you can surf anonymously without doing anything to protect yourself when using the internet.   There are so many individuals, companies and agencies who have access to virtually everything you do online simply by looking at the logs at your ISP or intercepting the data from your internet sessions directly.  But I'm afraid in some senses it's much worse than that, we are all to some extent contributing to our lack of privacy.

I'm referring to the process of data mining, which is the way of collecting, collating and analysing data obtained from various sources and creating useful information.   The way this information is used varies hugely of course, but is often used to increase revenue, target advertising, reduce costs and of course monitor individuals or groups.  That data is often ours and put up online or supplied voluntarily by ourselves.

You'll often won't be aware of how your information is being used but the simplest examples are from things like Store loyalty cards.  The big supermarkets love these because it allows them to mine all sorts of information about people and their shopping habits.  Their goal is of course to simply increase profits using the information at their disposal. So when they can extract information on purchasing habits on this scale they can adjust things like pricing, special offers or even product placements to make enormous differences to their profit levels.

It's all incredibly powerful stuff, limited only by the information available but with people using the internet and the amount of personal information leaked through this then that's never going to be a problem.  Just to illustrate the potential I'd like to tell you about an experiment conducted by Tom Owad some years ago.

All Tom did was to use some freely given information from Amazon to mine some interesting data.  He focussed on the Wish lists available on Amazon which contain details of books, films and products that customers buy or wish to buy.     It took him a couple of days but he succeeded in downloading and analysing  the wish lists of over a quarter of a million Americans.

This data included a partial address with city and state, first name and last names.  So Tom was able to use Yahoo People Search  to get their full address and phone number using that information.   He then used other online tools to look up exact locations and plot them on  Google maps .

He was then able to generate a map graphically illustrating the exact location of those who had a particular item on their wish list. This map shows all the readers of George Orwell's book 1984 for illustration - as you can see you can zoom in to the exact location of the reader. So remember Tom achieved this 5 years ago in a couple of days with an ordinary personal computer, some computer skills and publicly available information. What would a Government department with a couple of mainframes, a team of computer programmers, access to huge databases and a big fat budget be able to achieve.

Of course the searches are easily changed to those who've bought other books like the Quran, books on drugs, atheism, movies, music, recordings or really anything at all available at Amazon. I'm sure there's many such demographic maps on the systems of agencies like the CIA and FBI for example.

As Tom points out the Patriot Act allows the FBI to demand the complete database of any such organisation like Amazon if it's in regarding investigation and the prevention of terrorism and worse it doesn't even have to be disclosed - so you'd never know anyway.

I think the point I'm trying to make is that we should be really careful about how much of our lives we put out there online.  There's so much information out there about us already, that adding endless Twitter and Facebook updates on every move we make just seems too dangerous.  Everything we do or post online stays  up there, in all likelihood permanently as part of your very own electronic profile.

Of course there always be the argument of 'why do people need privacy if they've done nothing bad'  but to be honest that's like asking someone to put up with a stalker because you've got nothing to hide.  Ok rubbish analogy I know,  but I hope you get my meaning.  Wait till you read some of the Facebook stuff I've been researching !